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Elderberry, or common elder, is a shrub-like tree native to North America. The European elder grows much taller and has been naturalized in this country. Called the “medicine chest of the common people," man has known of its usefulness since prehistoric times.

Elderberry can be found growing both as a wild and cultivated plant, and can grow up to 30 feet tall. Leaves grow in opposite pairs and are pinnately compound. Leaflets are toothed and oval in shape, and the small white flowers sit in flat clusters, ripening into purple-black berries in September.

The berries, of course, make a delicious wine and jam, and are rich in vitamins A and C. But elderberry has had an extensive reputation as a healing plant throughout history. The leaves, flowers, bark, and berries have all been used in healing, although all but the berries contain poisonous alkaloids and should not be used internally.

Traditionally, elderberry leaves are considered purgative, expectorant, diuretic, and diaphoretic. Boiled with linseed oil, elder leaves have been used as a treatment for hemorrhoids in England. And elder leaf ointment is another traditional English remedy for wounds and bruises, and good rubbed on the back to promote easier breathing from colds and flu. To make this elder ointment, heat 4 ounces of green elder leaves in 1 pint olive oil for about an hour (low heat). The strain and discard the herb. Mix the oil with 1 1/2 ounces of beeswax. Stir until it cools and thickens. Store in the refrigerator in a wide-mouth jar.

Elderberries have been a traditional remedy for constipation, colic, diarrhea, colds, and rheumatism. The berries contain viburnic acid, which promotes perspiration. Elderberry tea is an old effective remedy for coughs, sinus congestion, and reducing swelling of sore throat. Elderberry also promotes the removal of waste products from the body, and is considered a powerful immune stimulant. And elder flower water, used as a skin lotion for its mild astringent properties, is still sold in old-fashioned pharmacies to this day.